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Hockeyland: The Review

21 September 2022

Two Fridays ago, I went to see Hockeyland with The Aaaahj, Dan of the Week, Mrs. Dan of the Week, and Fetus of the Week. Since the four of us are Big Deal AMC A-Listers (no corporate ruling on whether fetal personhood requires a move ticket for the unborn), we’re always up-to-date on cool happenings like a post-movie Q&A sesh with the filmmakers, so we headed over to Southdale and endured their uncomfortable reclining seats to see the film. I also endured eating too much cheese pre-movie and feeling like total garbage for like 75% of the showing.

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Hockeyland is a documentary following two boys’ high school hockey programs in Northern Minnesota – Hermantown and the now-defunct Eveleth-Gilbert (may it rest in peace) – through the 2019-2020 season. The star of the movie is our own Blake Biondi, in the sense that it shows him being very good at hockey, being nice, and then winning Mr. Hockey at the end and getting drafted in the epilogue. The supporting cast includes Hermantown’s coach Pat Andrews, two brothers on the Hawks, their parents, former Eveleth-Gilbert coach Jeff Torrel, two Golden Bears players, and one of the players’ parents. The movie also includes a cameo from Friend Of RWD Mark Wick speaking to Hermantown (I think, sometimes it was hard to tell everyone apart and also I wasn’t taking notes) about mental health and how being on social media for more hours a day is bad for your mental health. I feel like being on social media for less than 8 hours a day is actually what would be bad for my mental health, but I may be an outlier.

The movie is boring. That’s your tl;dr. Now, for the nle;wtrm (not long enough, want to read more).

There are spoilers here but also this is a documentary so reality is also a spoiler.

Most people I have seen comment on this movie have raved about it. This is not a reliable statistic as my sample is limited to other people who commented on Kevin Pates’s Faceyface post about it, but it’s also a key demo: people who are already enamored with the romance of hockey in the North Country. I actually used to be in that demo, but I’m post-romance now.

I’m not sure if this movie would be interesting to an outsider (non-Minnesotan). Some people will watch anything about sports, even reruns of the 1987 NIT semifinals, so it would likely be interesting to those people. However, this movie stacks Minnesota HS hockey up against Texas HS football, and then shows footage of mostly-empty arenas and an occasional fan. It’s a slice-of-life movie that never makes a point or has any kind of message. It doesn’t even get much into the history of the teams or the MSHSL. There’s not even a whiff of Bruce Plante or John Mayasich. It doesn’t talk about the impending merger with Virginia MIB (which wasn’t solidified at the time but was certainly a key topic) and how much those teams hate each other (I guess because we’re supposed to believe Hermantown is their rival?) There’s no narration, and it does seem like a bit of exposition and storytelling beyond the cinema verité-style interview snippets spliced in between practice footage.

There does seem to be an endless thirst to watch young hopeful men in their prime strive toward sporting achievements. This annoying person next to us who had to be scolded for using his phone during the movie asked a super long question that ended with a comparison to Hoop Dreams. I’m actually not sure he asked a question, he just said the movie was like Hoop Dreams. I mean sure, it’s similar to Hoop Dreams in that it is a movie about real teens playing sports. Clerks is also just like Casablanca, because they are both filmed in black and white and start with the letter C. To a certain subset of people, literally anything that shows young men with bright futures in sports will have them agog. It’s why the boys’ state HS tournament is so compelling – so many white kids with bright futures sporting all over the place! And maybe some of them had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps too!

There are two roles for women in this movie: mothers and girlfriends. We do see a teacher (I think) and a coach’s daughter for a few seconds, but mostly it’s just mothers and girlfriends. They even show one of the guys (I forgot who) going bowling with a girl he’s been “talking to.” (There’s also some kind of late-night celebration in the gym involving the hockey players and some girls wearing glow necklaces and doing a conga line around the gym, if someone from Hermantown could explain this it would be great.) There’s some footage of the Hermantown boys watching girls’ hockey, something I thought was really cool, but also went totally unexplored. Like, you couldn’t have two minutes of the side of Biondi’s face talking to someone off-camera about girls’ hockey, or found some footage of some girls at the local outdoor rink?

If you’re wondering if I asked about this during the Q&A, Reader, I did. I was informed that girls’ hockey has great stories but they’re not the ones to tell them because they’d have to be in the locker room. And yes, I get that, but all the footage of the boys in the locker room had them in their gear. It’s not like they were in the showers or something. They could still get their footage of someone throwing up in a toilet during “flu season” if they followed a girls’ team.

Despite focusing so much on men & boys during the movie, the moms end up stealing the show and having the most interesting stories. Jessica, the Eveleth-Gilbert mom, wonders if her son would have more opportunities if he lived in “the big city” and could be seen by more scouts or just be on a more successful team. I’d have loved to hear more exploration of the disparities between the former Range powerhouses and the Duluth schools, or the wealthy metro schools, but instead had to see a somewhat condensed version of the 2020 sections and state tournaments. I forgot Hermantown lost that year, that was a weird championship game.

We find out Lori, the Hermantown mom, is both chronically and terminally ill. (She passed away in June 2022.) Before this reveal, Lori and her husband reveal they worked opposite shifts so that at least one of them could always be there for their sons, a huge sacrifice even before you learn that they’re facing her terminal illness still trying to juggle this schedule. The most brutal moment captured in this movie is when Hermantown is honoring their seniors and their older son skates out with both of them. She tells him she loves him and in true teenage boy fashion, he doesn’t reciprocate. My heart hurts for the 2022 version of him, seeing that on film.

There are some quality moments in the movie, it’s not all horrible when it’s not interviewing the moms. There’s archival footage of a tiny Blake Biondi at a state tournament, as well as Coach Andrews as a Hermantown player, giving a totally jubilant stream-of-consciousness interview after scoring an overtime goal for the Hawks. There’s funny footage of the Hermantown guys towing one of their cars out of a snowbank, and Biondi getting chirped for his driving skills. The quiet Eveleth-Gilbert guy who also does Quiz Bowl gets crowned king of their winter dance. The Eveleth-Gilbert scoring superstar who did an undisclosed bad thing that was so bad it’s even against youth hockey rules gives an emotional interview about the end of his season while his dog barks in the background. That’s just not enough to make a movie on.

I think the real problem with this movie is that it feels too familiar (state tourney footage aside – that was a literal rerun). As a Minnesotan who has followed high school hockey my whole life (I was at the Cloquet-East game!), there are versions of every aspect of this film served up every season in My9 intermission vignettes, Clay Matvick anecdotes, and human interest stories in various print media outlets. I know that I hate everything other people love, so my opinion sometimes gets discounted (but seriously Shinedown is awful), but in this case I think you should listen to me: there’s nothing new or challenging in this film.

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